Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Should a socialist indulge in schadenfreude?

Of course she should, can and does, in terms of big important events on the stage of the worldwide class struggle, for example the impending doom of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. Anyone whose allegiance is with the workers, the poor, the oppressed, anyone who stands in solidarity with the fight for national sovereignty and against imperialism can't help but derive great joy from the increasing misery of the U.S.-puppet regime and the class of thieves and murderers it serves.

But hereabouts we're supposed to be about the arts. It's on not the world stage but the actual stage—the Broadway boards—that the events occasioning my question are unfolding. I'm talking about the ever unraveling travesty that is writer-director Julie Taymor's latest work of musical theater, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. As anyone who follows the theater even a little, and everyone who lives in New York where the whole mess has been front-page news for months, knows, this musical has major-league tsuris. The elaborate production design and attempts at unprecedented special effects make this the most expensive show in Broadway history. Trouble is, all the high-tech gadgetry, all the spectacle, can't compensate for an essentially lousy play. Even if they somehow could, the gizmos and doohickeys don't work. The whole months-long saga of tryouts, of rejiggering the book and music and choreography, which in this case means acrobatics more than dance, has been marked with repeated serious problems, especially mishaps with the flying contraptions including several injuries to actors, at least one very serious.

About that—worker injury, worker endangerment—I feel nothing close to schadenfreude. I feel rage. At Taymor and at the deep-pockets producers who've sunk $65 million dollars into what from all accounts (more on that in a minute) can scarcely be termed a work of art yet who, for all their money, can't manage to make it safe for the people doing the on-stage work. I'm enraged, too, at OSHA and New York state and city worker-safety officials, who should have long since stepped in to force the profiteers to fix this thing or shut it down. And I've got, if not rage, a lot of disappointment in and questions for Actors Equity and the other stage workers' unions. The Broadway unions, like the rest of the labor movement, have been under siege for a long time, and it's hard not to see their apparent inaction here as evidence of the state of their decline. Granted, they may be working behind the scenes to push for better on-stage safety. They should have been doing much more, much more publicly--mounting picket lines, making demands, building a solidarity movement, reaching out to the huge New York population of workers, union members and theater lovers. Instead, as unions in other industries have done for the last 30 years since the UAW's original Chrysler give-back contract, they seem to see their duty as supporting the bosses' profit-taking in hopes of keeping the enterprise open and saving jobs.

As to those jobs, all of them, onstage and back: I have only sympathy, fellow-feeling for the actors, singers and dancers subjected to these conditions. Conditions—unsafe physically and debased artistically—that theater workers feel compelled to grin and bear, grateful to have any job at all. This is a terribly unstable industry for its workers. There is no joy like landing a job, whether it's a lead role, in the chorus, downstairs sewing and mending costumes, up in the rafters working the lights, or in the box office selling tickets. Once you've got a show, you want it to stay open, naturally. On Broadway as in a coal mine or any other site of wage labor, no matter how dreary, how dangerous, you need that job. Oh god, as they sang in A Chorus Line, I need this job. At what cost, though? It might not hurt a theater worker's future prospects to have Spider-Man on the resume, but there will be no prospects after a broken neck from a fall due to defective equipment. On Broadway as in the mines, the bosses will always stint on safety in favor of profits.

Here's where schadenfreude comes in. I do take pleasure from this week's round of uproariously bad reviews for the Spidey musical. I am glad that these profit-takers in artist ("pardon me, I mean artiste," as the Times' critic Ben Brantley purred) garb are being humiliated. They should be ashamed.

Now, I'm not utterly starry-eyed about Broadway. Lots of shlock has passed that way. Much, maybe most, of the musical theater is mediocre, unmemorable. Much is objectionable from my political viewpoint. Hardly any, including a lot of the old musicals that I'm still sentimentally attached to and whose music still stirs my corny old heart, meets the mark for the best of what I wish from any art. In recent decades, the whole industry has become such a pure profit monster, with ticket prices rising so out of reach of most workers, that I guess it'd be silly to hope for something true and good and beautiful, new and creative and with, god forbid, something to say about society. All that said, though, this derivative cartoon cardboard cutout stunt is a new low for the New York stage and I'm glad for whatever potshots are thrown at its perpetrators.

Earlier I referred to "all accounts" because I base my broad characterizations of the awfulness of this so-called musical on what I've read in various reviews and commentaries. I have not myself seen it (even if I wanted to I couldn't afford a ticket) yet I feel safe, and justified, in the conclusions I've drawn about this stinker. I've made a long study of reading reviews, of books, movies and stage productions. It's more art than science, I suppose, but I think I've got it down, how I take into account the source, class slant, artistic standards and so on, breaking it all down so that I'm generally able to get a pretty good sense of the piece in question and what I'd think of it. Often I conclude that a negative review is wrong or am intrigued enough to want to see for myself. Or the opposite, I read through a rave and know to stay far away. I'm sure I'm not always right but one thing I have to admit is that the mainstream critics are not always wrong either, even if they're right for the wrong reasons. Such is the case, I believe, with the Spiderman musical. I'm sorry for the workers whose jobs—and safety—depend on its success but I'm not sorry for the miscreants whose worship of commerce over art are responsible for its becoming, already, a legendary failure.

I want to say one more thing about what Broadway can do. You might think that it's so in the grips of big money and old thinkers that it's incapable of mounting any but the most conventional works of musical theater. That we must look elsewhere for innovation, particularly politically conscious work. And mostly I'd say that's true, that exciting new work, in the musical theater as in drama as in books or movies or any other art form, is doubtless being created in countless corners by impoverished unknowns, and that most of it has no chance of ever seeing the light of day, at least as long as art remains locked down under capitalism. Once in a while, though, somehow, a bright light shines through.

Such was the case with Caroline, or Change, which I was lucky enough to see in early 2004 before it closed after an all too brief run on Broadway. This musical by Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori was unlike any I've ever seen. Innovative—hell yes, with talking washing machines, and scenes that conflate and compress time and space. Musically successful—OMG yes, with a near-operatic score that ranges wide and strikes deep. Artistically challenging and politically meaningful—since seeing this show I know that there is no topic that the genre of musical theater could not take on, no subject that is out of bounds, no approach that is out of reach. As I've admitted before, I'm a corny old sucker, and many's the old-school musical that reduces me to tears, but they're sentimental tears, triggered by various varieties of shtick. At the end of Caroline, or Change, by contrast, I was shaken deeply, to my core, by the important story it told, the profound issues it raised—and, not least, by the unbelievable and shamefully underappreciated brilliance of Tonya Pinkins in the starring role. I remember that as I rose and walked down the stairs from the balcony and out onto the street and over to the subway, as the minutes after the final standing ovation during which I'd sobbed my eyes out passed, as it turned into five minutes since the end, then 10, then 15, I was still trembling, I still felt undone. That it was the last thing I thought about as I fell asleep that night, and the first when I awoke next day, and for many days after that. That it haunts me still. This is what the musical theater can do.